A few weeks ago I quit a series in disgust. It started out OK but rapidly devolved into something actively painful to read. The final book I read (#6) was so bad I literally yelled at my e-reader on the train.
Normally my inclination would be to focus on the good in a novel, but this blog is supposed to be about what I’m learning and I learned a lot from this series despite it’s increasing awfulness.
I’m going to discuss the whole series in one go. Since I am really not recommending these books I don’t think spoiling the plot matters. Still:
** Spoilers **
The first three books, Quarter Share, Half Share, and Full Share, are not good, but they are readable. Book one introduces us to Ishmael Horatio Wang who is a pretty clear-cut Gary Stu of the geeky sub-type. When his mom dies and he’s kicked off his home planet he needs to find some way to support himself and ends up signing onto an interstellar cargo ship as a cook’s assistant. As a Gary Stu he immediately lands on his feet, charms his irascible crew mates into coming together as a crew, and discovers an “innate” talent for trading. Book two is basically “Ish” discovering his sexuality. He’s suddenly good-looking, all the ladies want him but he’s mostly too principled to sleep with them. When he does sleep with a number of “brilliant” generally older ladies – he’s amazing in bed and the women leave happy and satisfied with their lives touched by his insight into them (*gags*). In book three the plot begins to get really insufferable. Ishmael passes all of his exams with flying colors. He points out things that – presumably trained – professionals don’t see. He picks out goods which sell incredibly well. He’s suddenly a programming specialist just when the crew needs him to be – saving everyone on the ship.
It’s male-pattern escapist fantasy at its finest. A plucky orphan tale gussied up with science fiction leanings. And if it had ended with the third book it might have been fine.
Books four through six, Double Share, Captain’s Share, and Owner’s Share are where the writing takes a turn for the worse. First, there is no wrap-up to the problem presented at the end of book three of maybe not having enough money to make it through college. It’s just kind of hand-waved away, no mention of debt or anything. Way to miss a good motivator. Then he gets dropped into an awful ship (though apparently awful involves all the women still being in to him). While dealing with this he discovers the person who really should be captain and charms her into the role.
The less said about the last two books the better. He gets handed a ship on a silver platter and all his dreams come true, but he’s not happy because he’s not doing anything fulfilling with his life. The last book has so many plot-holes and problems I can’t even list them all. I tried but it made this whole thing too long and asinine.
I want to talk about two major failings in this series (there are more but I want to sleep sometime tonight). One lies in the setting of the story and the other with the main character. Let’s start with “Ish.”
I started out by calling Ishmael a Gary Stu and I’m sticking by that. In addition to being the laddie’s man, nerd when its convenient, somehow Tai-Chi master in four years; he has all the agency of Harry Potter in his own story. Which is to say not very much. He’s pushed along by the other characters to his destiny with almost no input and minimal action from him. He is very much in fact the no-flaws “destined hero” that Lowell specifically claims not to be writing about. In his about me page he writes:
“Unlike most works which focus on a larger-than-life hero (prophesized [sic] savior, charismatic captain, or exiled prince), Nathan centers on the people behind the scenes–ordinary men and women trying to make a living in the depths of space. In his novels, there are no bug-eyed monsters, or galactic space battles, instead he paints a richly vivid and realistic world where the “hero” uses hard work and his own innate talents to improve his station and the lives of those of his community.”
Just because his destiny seems to be pushing him to be a starship captain instead of the universe’s savior doesn’t mean it’s any less pre-destined. The fact that the author seems to honestly believe otherwise is amazing to me.
Look. It’s OK if your MC starts off as a Gary Stu or Mary Sue. We all want to inhabit a different world sometimes and there’s nothing wrong with a little escapist fantasy. But there’s no gosh darned reason not to catch the problem by the second or third book and start challenging them and introducing real conflict – which is not the same as “bug-eyed monsters or galactic space battles”. Conflict cannot – should not – be hand waved away either, nor should the outcome always be successful.
The second problem in this series I find actually to be the bigger one. In Lowell’s version of space there is only one culture. Really. He goes out of his way to emphasize how similar all the space stations are to one-another. All following the same plan and all with no alien life or even different trade goods truly unique to a planet. No conflicts with petty or corrupt bureaucracies. Not even an attempt at a localized dialect (one badly done affected French accent does not count). Practically no diversity whatsoever. There is one – literally one – cultural practice mentioned in six books (the pukas) and they are wrapped up in some mystic-hokum that never really amounts to anything.
If this is what Lowell imagines is a “richly vivid and realistic world” then I am very sad for him. Yes, the people are described as being different colors, but they’re not really actually that different from each other. The women mostly look different so the main character can lust after them, honestly. Or is that the reader?
As a writer I see this as a huge missed opportunity to make the books actually richer. These books would have been a hell of a lot better if the characters really went somewhere interesting. Anywhere that might have challenged them, in any manner whatsoever. Instead they’re just mostly bland, badly plotted, increasingly misogynistic fluff that keeps digging itself deeper with every book.
So what did I learn?
1. Challenge your characters. Conflict doesn’t have to involve guns and space-battles, but it is the engine that drives the story forward. Leaving it out makes the story unsatisfying and loses you readers. See books by Rachel Aaron for models of stories that don’t rely on outside antagonists.
2. Diversity really matters. And not just colors of people. Actual different cultures. Especially in a book with such low conflict, a diverse and interesting crowd of people and places could have kept the story ticking over. Once we got through Ishmael learning about his world, things just sort of fell flat. See the book Hellspark for an example of getting it right, or really anything by Lee & Miller or McMaster Bujould.